Anj Cairns writes young adult fiction books. Since living in Tottenham, she's released two books "Life in Your World" and more recently "Stuck in Your World", whilst still carrying out her role as a CEO of a national charity. Amy Bush sat down with Anj to find out more.
Can you tell us about your background and how you came to Tottenham?
I’ve lived all over the place and done lots of different jobs. I’ve been a primary school teacher, I lived and worked in Mozambique for a couple of years, and now I work in charities which I’ve done since 2002. I’ve lived in London for about eleven years and I’ve always been in North London.
Photo supplied: Anj Cairns
After a few years I started looking for somewhere to live, and that’s how I ended up in Tottenham. I moved here really because of transport links, but since actually living here for the past six years I feel like I’ve become part of such a strong community. I really love Tottenham.
Tell us about the ‘Your World’ series you’re writing.
I’ll try and do this without too many spoilers! It’s a trilogy, I’ve written the first two books and they’re published and available to buy now. They’re set in the Tufnell Park/Kentish Town area and they’re about a protagonist called Sketch who comes from a different world. She’s come to live as a teenage girl in the human world and to find out what it’s all about. Sketch is a seventeen-year-old who is quite naive and only has certain knowledge of how the world works. In some ways, like lots of teenagers, she’s finding her way in the world, but she’s experiencing it from a completely different perspective.
Was it hard getting into the mind of a teenager?
Yes and no. Obviously I’m not a teenager anymore and it’s been a long time since I’ve been one! But, to be honest, a lot of it is more to do with the essence of what it’s like being that age and the really strong feelings that you experience. It’s a difficult time and it can be very angsty. You’re finding out things and discovering who you are and I don’t think that has changed much since I was a teenager. However, they have different pressures these days. They have the internet and social media and all that comes with it - the good and the bad - which I didn’t have to deal with growing up. I have made some assumptions about what it’s like to be a teenager these days, but I really enjoyed looking at the world differently and through a younger frame of reference.
The books cover many important social issues, including the isolation of elderly people, library closures, and teenage pregnancy. Was it important for you to highlight these things to young people?
Yes, and not just to young people. When I wrote the first book I didn’t write it for a particular audience, it has just kind of fallen into this genre. But I also see them as books for adults of all ages, young and old; there’s a whole range of people reading and enjoying them.
Photo supplied: Anj at her "Stuck in Your World" book launch in August.
But yeah, the social issues for me are fundamentally important. This is the world we live in and these things are really happening to people around us. I do think the books are quite light around some of these issues but I like to weave them into the stories.
Library closures is a really important issue. Libraries are fundamental to our society. They are places people go to read, to find out, to belong, and as I say in the first book, there are people who go there because they don’t have heating at home or they just want somewhere to go and read the newspaper and have somewhere safe to be. I spent a lot of time as a child in a library. I loved books. But I didn’t come from a wealthy family; we couldn’t afford to buy all the books I wanted to read so I was constantly going to the library. I would devour books and then go back and get more – I’m sure the library staff knew me fairly well! I can’t imagine my life had the library not been there for me.
Do the places you live and spent time in influence your writing?
Yes they do. I mean certainly with the Your World books because they’re set in Tufnell Park and I lived there for a period of time so it made it easy to write about. Recently I’ve started to write more short stories that pick up on things about the Tottenham area. I’ve written a couple of stories, there will be three of them in total (the third one is to come) which are about the idea of appearances in the context of the place we are now. They are about what it would be like if Barbie and Ken (as in Barbie the doll) lived in Tottenham.
How did you get into writing and what advice would you give to budding writers?
I’ve always written a bit on and off since I was at school but never really followed it through. When I moved to London I started doing some workshops with someone who is now a friend of mine. She runs workshops under the name Creative Writes. A lot of the stuff that she does is around the idea of free flow; it’s about releasing your imagination and stopping the self-editing that naturally happens when you sit down to write and you get stuck, you just don’t know where to start. We would do simple short exercises where you write whatever comes into your head; you have a prompt and then you just write whatever is in there. It is incredibly powerful and freeing and allows you to see that, yes, you can be creative.
The advice that everyone would give anyone who wants to write is: just write! You have to sit down and do it. It doesn’t matter about what you write and whether it’s rubbish. The first draft of anything will always be a bit rubbish but that is why you go back and you edit it and you turn it into something else, it’s a bit like sculpture but with words.
I started writing the first Your World book back in 2010 and it was actually for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which happens all over the world during the month of November. You have a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. A friend of mine said “shall we do this?” so I had a go. I had just the kernels of an idea really, I came up with the name Sketch - that’s my main character - and then wrote this 50,000 words. I then didn’t really do very much with it, I didn’t even finish the first draft for months. But I kept slowly going back to it.
What are your favourite things to do in Tottenham?
There seems to have been an explosion of things in Tottenham recently. I spend quite a lot of time at Craving Coffee, quite often for brunch but more often for the Tottenham Social pop-ups. I love it there, I’m always guaranteed to see some friends, they have great drinks and a really interesting range of food pop-ups. I also absolutely love Tottenham Green Market so I pop over every Sunday. I know most of the store holders now to say hello to and have a chat and I always bump into people I know.
Photo supplied: Anj at Tottenham Green.
That’s actually one of the things I really love about Tottenham - I can walk down the street and bump into people that I know, and I know lots of my neighbours. People often say that bits of London are like a village, and Tottenham really does feel like that; there’s a really solid community with people that care.
As well as writing you also work for a charity helping prisoners learn to read?
As my day job I’m CEO of a national charity called Shannon Trust. We support prisoners who can read to teach prisoners who can’t. It’s a really amazing fulfilling charity to work for. We train, inspire, and develop people in prison to be mentors and to sit with a peer and teach them to read; there is a lot of value on both sides. My favourite part of my job is when I go into a prison and meet mentors and learners and they talk about how the project has changed their lives. Prisoners who have learnt to read tell me about the things they can do now, such as being able to read letters from home, fill in forms, and take part in really basic everyday life. Many are able to go on to other education and just read books experience the joy of reading. For me it’s the perfect match up with also having a writing life and being an author.
To find out more about Anj and her work:
You can buy books by Anj on Amazon: www.amazon.co.uk/Life-Your-World-Anj-Cairns-ebook/dp/B07467XL8D/